updated 7/10/2008 8:56:21 PM ET 2008-07-11T00:56:21

The man accused of a courthouse shooting rampage that left four people dead pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity as his trial began Thursday, more than three years after prosecutors say Brian Nichols confessed in the killings.

Defense attorney Henderson Hill entered the plea for Nichols a day after filing a motion claiming that Nichols was insane and couldn't tell "right from wrong" during the killings.

Even Nichols' defense team has conceded he killed a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy at the county courthouse in downtown Atlanta on March 11, 2005, and a federal agent later that day.

But the trial has faced a series of complications that have alternately astonished and outraged a community trying to close the books on the shootings that turned Fulton County's seat of justice into a crime scene.

Myriad problems
Nichols has been accused of plotting an escape. Defense attorneys claim a prosecutor committed crimes of her own. And the district attorney sued the presiding judge, who later stepped down.

And there's still uncertainty about where the trial will be held. Jury selection began in the same courthouse as the shootings, but defense attorneys have long urged that the case be heard in another building in the county out of fairness to their client.

The new judge, James Bodiford, said Thursday he was moving the trial to another location within the next 10 days, but did not specify where. A possible location is the Atlanta Municipal Court, which handles traffic cases.

Bodiford, who took over the case in February, has vowed to keep the case on track, rebuffing an attempt by Nichols' attorneys Thursday to delay the case further.

"One thing I must do in this case is justice," Bodiford said. "But secondly I must be efficient, if I can."

Attorneys began screening the first batch of dozens of potential jurors Thursday in hopes of finding a pool of 100 qualified jurors. From there, 18 jurors will be selected — 12 jurors and six alternates.

Legal experts say finding a fair jury to decide one of the most notorious cases in modern Atlanta history could be the trickiest task. Dozens of potential jurors were expected to be screened by prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout the day.

The jurors watched a 37-minute video describing the 54 counts against Nichols, who sat silently with his eyes downcast as it was played. About a dozen deputies and security officers in khaki vests roamed the courtroom, and each visitor was first screened by a deputy waving a metal detector.

The trial could last for months. As many as 600 witnesses could be called, and written evidence runs to the thousands of pages.

Prosecutors say Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom in the Fulton County Courthouse when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree.

He is accused of killing four people: Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm. Nichols surrendered the next day after allegedly holding a woman hostage in her suburban Atlanta home.

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